Sep 18, 2018

5th Brewgrass Festival

September, 2001

By Bobby Bush

For two years running, Asheville’s annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival has flirted with disaster. Last year the City nearly pulled the rug out from under the fest with barely two weeks to go before kegs were to be tapped. City officials told Festival Director Doug Beatty that an extended drought had forced them to declare the municipal football/soccer field, a.k.a. the festival grounds, off-limits. Beatty and his Barley Taproom & Pizzeria crew swiftly relocated to the downtown City County Plaza, with the only mishap being a severe shortage of porta-johns.

This year for the 5th annual fest, the plastic outhouses were all lined up. Over 25 breweries had signed on. Entertainment secured. City County Plaza was booked. And then disaster struck on September 11, terrifying the nation, shocking the world. Events of all kinds, including NCAA and NFL football, were postponed, seen by many as superfluous activities in this time of sorrow and mourning. Obviously these tragic attacks were not shrugged off as inconsequential by Beatty and his co-sponsors, WNCW and French Broad and Highland breweries. They debated at length, considering the pros and cons of canceling the fest.

Seizing opportunity from the teeth of despair, in the name of recovery and solace, the Brewgrass Fest proceeded as planned with one addition. A second charity was selected. The American Red Cross joined Big Brothers Big Sisters as recipients of the fest’s proceeds. As the informative festival program so considerately stated: “There is no denying, that despite our best efforts, this will not be a typical festival.... We truly want you to have a good time and sense of well being today, but if you find you can’t, please come to the Red Cross station for comfort and assistance.”

There were at least two festival casualties. Bluegrass headliner Tony Trischka was unable to fly in from New York. The Krueger Brothers were stuck in Switzerland. Local heroes Sons of Ralph and the Greasy Beans filled in, warming the stage for Bluegrass Underground who stepped into the headliner role with ease. There were several no-shows among the breweries too. But under the circumstances, no one complained. After all, there were 27 breweries serving nearly 90 different beers to over 2,800 people - 600 more than last year.

Olde Hickory Brewery’s four kegs were the first to run dry, quickly followed by others as darkness fell upon the seven hour program. Fellowship ran rampant. Beer and conversation flowed freely. And the bands played on.

There were quite a few notable beers. Ryan Kurlfink not only brought his Blue Ridge Brewing beers, brewed at his brewpub in Greenville, SC, but he also introduced a new venture. Since South Carolina prohibits brewpubs from distributing their wares, Ryan formed a new company, Kind Ales Ltd., and contracted with Asheville micro French Broad to produced smooth, mild Kind Ale. Mark Johnsen, RJ Rockers brewer, was there from Spartanburg, toting his portable keg dispensing system like a backpack, taking his great beer to the gathered masses. From Sevierville, TN, Rocky River brewer Ron Downer served his brand new Smokey the Beer Porter. The Highland Brewing crew, including owner Oscar Wong and head brew John Lyda, had little time to lounge on their makeshift furniture constructed of full bags of malted barley.

Brewer Jay McGough was attending his last fest as an employee of Ham’s Brewhaus in Greenville, NC. He’ll be headed westward in a matter of weeks, to join his wife (for whom Bella Dona Strawberry Ale was named) seeking brewing work somewhere near her in Southern California. Weeping Radish, all the way from Manteo, boasted a delicious cask conditioned Marzen which, unfortunately, kicked before dark. From his Thomas Creek refrigerated trailer, Tom Davis and family worked seven taps, including a supple Dopple Bock. Sweetwater Brewing’s Kevin McNerney touted four of his Atlanta-brewed beers. The berry-esque Sweetwater Blue keg was his first to blow. From Farmville, NC, Williamsville brought the fruity First Coast Mango Ale. And there was Cottonwood Endo IPA, Green Man ESB, Atlanta Brewing’s Peachtree Ale, French Broad Goldenrod Lager, Dogwood Breakdown IPA, Asheville Pizza Shiva IPA and way, way too many more to remember. The weather was perfect. Significant funds were raised for worthy charities.

Forgetting the death and destruction of September 11 is an impossibility. Putting it behind us will be difficult. Yet life must go on. However brief and fleeting, beer provided the social lubricant that warm afternoon, granting some degree of normalcy. The Brewgrass Festival of September 15 made uncertainty just a little more bearable. May security, sanity and peace be with us all.

Look for festival photos at

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush


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